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Among different topics appearing in literary texts, death is one aspect that many writers will address. For ages, death has been portrayed as an ultimate bad character which is evil, disastrous but sadly inevitable. However in the poem “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” by Emily Dickinson, she adopted a rare description of death and personified it as a gentleman caller who took a leisurely journey with her to the grave. Scholars have argued the possible implied meanings of the poem for long as her obvious desire of death is mysterious (Priddy 41). Adopting the research framework proposed by Priddy (214) and Semansky (24), this paper argues “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” is a statement about the unhappiness of marriage through adopting a feminist reading. The entire analysis presented in this paper follows Priddy (214) and Semansky (24) approaches in feminist reading of the poem with reference also to other scholars’ views and my own interpretations. It begins with explanations on how the poem expresses narrator’s complaints to the patriarchal nature of marriage though examining the first four stanzas of the poem. Then, her hopelessness towards the escapement from her marriage as in the remaining two stanzas will be featured. The essay will be concluded with the significance of the analysis in understanding Emily Dickinson’s life and the society at that period of time.
2. Narrator’s complaints to the patriarchal nature of marriage
2.1 The introductory role of stanza 1 The poem expression of narrator’s complaints to the patriarchal nature of marriage is significantly portrayed in the first four stanzas of the poem. In stanza one, it tells the narrator of the poem being visited by a gentleman who is personified as “death”. Such initial portrayal and the ongoing descriptions of the image of carriage, the “gentleman” politeness and the action of stopping paves the poem’s uses of courtship to bring out its theme and content (Crosthwaite 22). Serving as an introductory stanza, although the first three lines do not strongly suggest the idea of her complaint to marriage, the last line of this stanza describing the concept of “immortality” is in fact the main theme of the poem which contributes to the poem’s main storyline (Galperin 64). Argued also by Semansky (24), it is a very crucial element supporting her complaints to marriage. “Immortality” is being contrasted in the last stanza of the poem in which further discussion will be made. 2.2 The patriarchal act of Death of stanza 2 After giving an introduction, the second stanza reveals more textual evidence to support the thesis. It starts with descriptions of the negative aspects of their relationship. “Death” insists the narrator abandoning both “labor” and “leisure” in her life. Due to Death’s apparent civility, the narrator has no way but to accept his invitation. Argued by Galperin (66) and Semansky (26), there underlies the male-driven nature of relationships. The female narrator is rather passive in which she could only follow what “death” asked her to do, in which the role of “death” being a metaphor of her husband is at this stage being revealed. Despite her complaint, in fact we could still observe her little remaining trust to “death” through the narrator’s use of a positive noun “civility”. It implies that at this stage, the narrator still had some wishes to attain a life-long healthy relationship with the husband (Semansky 26). But the descriptions in the remaining stanzas show that it is just an illusion. 2.3 The passiveness of woman in stanza 3 Moving to the third stanza, there further describes their journeys to different places which resemble different moments in their life. They drove slowly passing different familiar sights of the town, seeing fields of grain near local school and its playground. All these images suggest phases of their lives which they have been passing through together (Johnson 34). The most significant element in this stanza will be the frequent uses of the word “pass”. Apparently a pleasant journey, the word “pass” implies that she is given no chance to have further experience in those places (Galperin 68). It is being argued as another complaint to the male-dominated nature of the marriage. Every aspect of women’s life is under men’s strictest control without being given any rights to have further exploration (Priddy 216). 2.4 The beginning of abandonment of woman in stanza 4 The first line in stanza four is literally significant which works as a connection and shows a contrast to the last line of the third stanza. Rather than saying “We passed the setting sun”, she self-corrected it as “Or rather—He passed Us—.” This is argued by Semansky (24) that it suggests the passiveness of herself in a male-dominated society. Sun works as a metaphor to social norms. It is the social norms which reinforce the masculine patriarchal ideology to them without giving rights for the narrator and other females to make changes to their lives. Following lines in this stanza further describe a significant scenario. We are told that she is not dressed adequately as she only wears a “gossamer gown” and a “tulle lace cap”. She has been left alone. Even she was not feeling comfortable, her husband did not give her any support. More than that, the emotional descriptions and the narrators suffering in the form of a “quivering” and “chill” in the following line further act as kinds of literal coldness suggesting her sadness in marriage (Semansky 25). The image being portrayed here again shows the narrator’s complaint and dissatisfaction to her marriage, with an increasing intensity when comparing with previous stanzas. 2.5 Marriage’s patriarchal implications The first four stanzas, as argued from the captioned points of view, have significantly expressed her complaints and dissatisfaction towards her lost of freedom in marriage which supports the statement of the poem’s portrayal of unhappiness of marriage. Marriage is just a hindrance to female’s individual freedom. Once a woman gets married, it is like on boarding the carriage by “Death” with no returning way.
3. Narrator’s hopelessness towards escapement from marriage 3.1 Moving towards death in stanza 5 The description of her unhappiness in marriage is peaked at the remaining two stanzas, in which her hopelessness towards the escapement from marriage is expressed. At the beginning of the fifth stanza, there describes “Death” taking the narrator to her new home which is obviously a grove. It is described as “A Swelling of the Ground” whose roof is “scarcely visible” with “Cornice” in the ground. Argued by Semansky (24), this “house” can be seen as “both a bridal house and the speaker’s own grave of love and marriage”. Metaphorically, the “Cornice” is the only visible part of the house. Without door in the grave, there is no possible escapement from death, as if no possible escapement from the deadening marriage. The only visible part, the cornice, is a very famous symbol in the poem as argued by Nyren (16). What cornice portrays is the image of elegance and beautifulness, but underneath there always lies sad stories of his/her life no matter how beautiful it is. However, the deceased can never have chance to express his/her feeling towards it. Equally comparable with marriage; apparently marriage is regarded as romantic and happy, the sad scenes in marriage can be hardly seen and understood by outsiders (Woolf 46). Every man would express the excellence of the marriage to other people and truth is always hided. Women have no way and right to express their sadness in a male-dominated society leaving only a fake portrayal of marriage. 3.2 The fake immortality in stanza 6 The first two lines of this final stanza express her hatred to the repetitiveness of marriage. “Since then ‘tis centuries, and yet each / Feels shorter than the Day”. Marriage is nothing but a torture for her and there lies her view of escapement (Knapp 78). The phrase “first surmised” in the following line, as Semansky (27) suggested, is an ironic image of the poem expressing the narrator’s bitterness at being tricked. Through using horse as a symbol: horses’ heads usually point down but not up, it expresses the narrator’s feeling towards the ridiculousness of marriage. While initially she still had little hopes to believe that the “carriage ride”, i.e., love relationship, can last forever, it ends up with nothing. What being referred to as “eternity” and “immortality” in the poem is nothing more than a kind of annihilation of dream leaving only a prolonged torture. Dickinson’s careful conflation of love and death into one single character leads to a statement in regard to the interdependence of love and death. When one chooses to get love, inevitably one would be facing death at the end. Marriage always leads to the death of individuality and freedom. The narrator regrets of getting onto the carriage, but sadly it shall remain “eternal” in the “grave” with only an apparent portrayal of happiness without any possible hope for escapement.
4. Conclusion In the captioned analysis, it is argued that “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” is a statement about the unhappiness of marriage through adopting a feminist reading. As a matter of fact, many literary critics also comment that many other poems by Emily Dickinson can also be read in a feminist way and some scholars even regard her as a feminist poet (Priddy 52). This can be explained with reference to the social status of women in mid-nineteenth century when she was born. During that period, a woman’s proper role was only to be a subordinator of her husband. They were given no rights and freedom and many devastating situations of women had been covered (Wikipedia, “Emily Dickinson”). These historical facts can support the possibility of her integrating feminist ideas into her poems, which was some of the only possible ways for her to express herself (Wikipedia, “Feminist Literary Criticism”). Throughout Dickinson’s life, she has not got married (Knapp 35). What the captioned analysis may also provide an answer to her decision as the poem simply serves as a complaint to the stifling and limiting nature of marriage, in which she dared not to take and get on board the “carriage ride” so to maintain her lifelong freedom.
Works Cited Websites “Emily Dickinson.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 12 April 2012. < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emily_Dickinson >. “Feminist literary criticism.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 27 April 2012. < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feminist_literary_criticism>. Books Dickinson, Emily. Emily Dickinson – Edited and with an introduction by Geoffrey Moore. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1986. Print. Priddy, Anna. Bloom’s how to write about Emily Dickinson. New York: Bloom’s Literary Criticism, 2008. Print. Johnson, Thomas H. Readings on Emily Dickinson. San Diego: Greenhaven, 1997. Print. Knapp, Bettina L. Emily Dickinson. New York: Continuum Publishing, 1989. Print. Nyren, Dorothy Curley, ed. and complier. “Emily Dickinson,” in A Library of Literary Criticism. New York : Frederick Unger, 1960. Print. Semansky, Chris. Poetry for students. US : Literature Resource Center, 1998. Print. Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. London: Hogarth Press, 1929. Print. Journals Crosthwaite, Jane. “Emily Dickinson’s Ride with Death.” Massachusetts Studies in English 7-8 (1981): 18 – 27. Print. Galperin, William. “Emily Dickinson’s Marriage Hearse.” Denver Quarterly 18 (1984): 62 – 73. Print. Glenn, Eunice. “Emily Dickinson’s Poetry: A Revaluation,” The Sewanee Review Autumn (1943): 585 – 588. Print. Newton, Judith May. “To Be a Woman, To Be a Poet.” Essays and Studies in English Language and Literature 68-69 (1978): 45 – 69. Print.
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